As the newly appointed regional dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Brownsville, Belinda Reininger, DrPH, MPH, is dedicated to improving the health and vitality of the people who live in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Joseph B. McCormick, MD, MS, the longtime, renowned dean who recruited Reininger as an assistant professor 18 years ago, stepped down as regional dean at the end of last year, but will remain on the faculty as the James H. Steele, DVM Professor of Epidemiology.
“It has always been our mission to make the Lower Rio Grande Valley the healthiest place in Texas to live,” said Reininger, professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences. “Good progress has been made, but we’re in no way done. I’m looking forward to exploring new opportunities to help change norms and further improve outcomes. It’s such an honor to work with great faculty, staff, and community partners to achieve this goal. I’m still excited every day to get up and contribute to public health.”
Reininger cited a high prevalence of obesity, lack of healthy food choices, and physical inactivity as key factors contributing to a multitude of chronic disease conditions, such as diabetes, in the region. Based on Cameron County Hispanic Cohort data, around 30 percent of the population has Type 2 diabetes. By contrast, diabetes affects 9.4 percent of the U.S. population, with 90-95 percent attributable to Type 2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our communities along the U.S.-Mexico border are among the poorest in the country with a high burden of chronic diseases, which we’re working hard to analyze, understand, and address through extensive research and intervention strategies,” Reininger said. “These are primarily lifestyle diseases, so interventions are needed both in clinics and the communities to support individuals in making healthy choices.”
Much of the school’s work involves collaborations with community, clinic, and city partners.
“We are known for being a good partner, pulling together as a team, and bridging the gap between research and practice,” Reininger said. “On the ground, community health workers are educating and building skills. Our strong city partnerships are resulting in environment and policy changes, such as creating trails for cycling and walking, and promoting active transportation.”
Reininger hopes to expand the endeavors of McCormick, who set up the school from scratch in 2000 with his wife Susan Fisher-Hoch, MD, professor of epidemiology at the school, and begin new initiatives that address the health needs of the community.
“I feel so privileged to have been here from the beginning, and learned so much under Dr. McCormick’s leadership,” Reininger said. “I always wanted to be part of a public health institution that makes a difference to a region, and the residents of our counties are deserving of the best health status possible.”
Besides delivering unique research and developing public health initiatives, the school also offers public health degrees and innovative educational opportunities.
“I’m extremely proud of our programs introduced by McCormick. We offer incredible learning opportunities, including a summer internship program for undergraduates and high school students, to support first-generation Hispanic students. It’s so rewarding to see them flourish and enter health professions,” Reininger said.
Reininger earned a master’s degree and doctorate in public health at UTHealth School of Public Health. Her chief research and academic interests include community-based intervention and Hispanic health, with particular emphasis on obesity, diet, physical activity, and chronic disease prevention and management.
“Over the years Dr. McCormick and Dr. Reininger have built the campus into a locally responsive institution that addresses key health issues in the Rio Grande Valley, resulting in tremendous funding to the area and numerous successful community-driven research initiatives,” said Eric Boerwinkle, PhD, dean, M. David Low Chair in Public Health, and Kozmetsky Family Chair in Human Genetics at UTHealth School of Public Health.
“Dr. Reininger is an outstanding researcher and educator, and we are fortunate to have her leading the Brownsville campus into the future,” Boerwinkle said. “Her work designing and examining interventions targeting obesity and chronic diseases in Mexican-Americans has had a remarkable impact on the health of the Brownsville community, and has offered a model for other communities to follow. Her record of research-related engagement is unsurpassed, and I look forward to working with her as she begins her new role.”
The vision of UTHealth School of Public Health, which has six regional campuses, is to improve the health of the population through prevention, better health outcomes, and a trained population health workforce.
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